When I first came up with the scheme to adopt a dog and train her to be a therapy dog for my students at school, I thought the idea was so brilliant and original. It didn’t take long for me to learn that, while it might be brilliant, it sure wasn’t original. Almost from the get-go people told me stories of friends, relatives, friends of friends, relatives of relatives, all who took, knew, and otherwise experienced therapy dogs at schools. Not all of them were being used as I envisioned employing my new dog. Many of the pups I heard about went to grade schools where struggling readers read out loud to them. Still, there were those, like mine, whose raison d’être was to snuggle with students in the school counselor’s office.
As the months have gone by, I’ve heard more stories, whether from folks who read the blog or from tuning in to the Bedlington Terrier community. People have shared their excitement when their dogs passed the therapy dog tests, they’ve forwarded articles about the now numerous colleges and universities whose libraries “check out” stress reducing dogs during exam periods, I’ve even seen stories and articles about titled dogs retiring from the show ring to become therapy dogs.
In the last week, especially, I’ve been keenly aware of the naiveté which lead me to think, more than a year ago, that anyone would be interested in reading about my experiences with training a dog to become a therapy dog at a small independent school on the Central Coast of California. Yet, readers have been so kind, and I’ve gotten to meet, at least virtually, people who share a love equal to mine and an experience far greater of Bedlington Terriers and dogs in general. And there is something else. In writing a thousand words or so about our experiences every week (with a couple of gaps here and there), there has been a quality to the journey I don’t think we would have felt otherwise. A consciousness of sharing the process, maybe, which led to a consciousness of the process itself.
On Blog Day One as I stared at the Blogspot instruction, “Give a brief description of your blog,” a desire to prove how special Cleo was prompted me to write that it was a blog “about a perfect Bedlington Terrier.” I realize that I no longer care if the world thinks she’s special. John and I do, and that’s enough.
So here I’ve been, for this last week or two, pondering how common it is to have a therapy dog, and how naïve I was to want to write about the process. Completely uncharacteristically, I decided to watch a TED talk as I ate lunch this afternoon. I’m very fond of TED talks, but when I eat a meal alone, I’m far more likely to read a novel or a news article than to watch a video. But John has an excruciatingly long wedding gig up in Capitola today, I recently finished one novel and wasn’t ready to jump into another, and the news has just been too disheartening lately, so I poked at the TED ap icon on my iPad, tapped on “Recommended,” noticed a talk on connection in a wired world, hit play and took a bite of my sandwich.
The speaker was a psychologist named Sherry Turkle. Her talk was called “Connected, but alone?” I’ve embedded it at the end, if you want to watch, which I recommend. Her research has shown something that probably won’t surprise anyone: People check their email in board meetings, they shop or go on Facebook when they’re in class, they text at family dinners. Children complain that their parents are unavailable to them because the adults are too busy checking their email at the breakfast table. Of course, Turkle follows this up with a picture of her daughter and a couple of friends hanging out together. Each one is buried in her phone, texting. Some of her subjects even admitted to texting during funerals.
After several of her subjects told her that they wished that a technological entity like Siri, the voice of the iPhone’s virtual assistant, could be their best friend, Turkle had to ask herself why. Her answer is that as we have come to expect more and more of our technology, we expect less and less of each other. We are so used to being shortchanged by our human friends and their distractions, we are so convinced that we are not being listened to, that we have turned to the dependable presence of technology instead. If I post to Facebook, someone might “like” my status update. It seems someone has registered my existence. But a snippet doesn’t have the same resonance as a conversation. If there is no give and take, do we really feel heard?
A significant area of technological research is the Sociable Robot, designed to be companions to the elderly and to children. Turkle took one in the shape of a baby seal to a nursing home where she was doing research and left it with a woman who had lost a child. The robot seemed to look at the woman, seemed to be listening and tracking what she said. It gave her its undivided attention. It provided the appearance of empathy. But, Turkle mourned, this woman was trying to make sense of her loss with something that had no understanding of life and death, that had no arc of experience.
The moment I heard this story, I thought of Cleo’s Grandmother Jan who takes her Bedlington, Sterling, to a nursing home regularly. Sterling visits with a woman who one day told him that she was concerned about her finances because the person supposedly taking care of them wouldn’t show her the bank’s statements. As the woman unfolded her story, Sterling listened warmly, but so did Jan, and she went to bat for this woman. In short order, they discovered that the “caretaker” had taken care of $20,000 into her own pocket.
Thanks to a human-therapy dog team, this elderly woman had not only connection, but communication, empathy and protection. Stories like this abound because that’s what the therapy dog programs are all about. The warm, furry ambassador builds the sense of trust and safety, the human parent follows up with empathy, the depth of experience, and most importantly, a keenly attentive ear.
The world can never have too many therapy dogs. It may not be an original idea to want to add another one, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. I hereby go on record: I fully embrace and accept my naiveté!
View the complete TED Talk, Connected, but alone?